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2015 Division Preview: NFC North

Aaron Rodgers is in the NFC North, therefore the division title goes through Green Bay and Rodgers. The question becomes, can a second team from the north earn a playoff birth in 2015?

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC North is a very talented, yet equally flawed division. While three of the four teams in the north are legitimate playoff contenders, only one is a threat to go deep in the playoffs. As long as Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, this division is the Packers and then everyone else follows - and it isn't even close.

1) Green Bay Packers

2015 Prediction: 12-4

2014 Record: 12-4, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Why they win the division:

Aaron Rodgers - This is a quarterback driven league and in my opinion, Rodgers is the best in the NFL. Regardless of injuries, with Rodgers, the Packers are still a Super Bowl contender. If not for an epic collapse in the last few minutes in Seattle, the Packers would have been in Super Bowl XILX, and in my opinion, would have raised the trophy.

Eddie Lacy - In Rodgers absence in 2013, Lacy established himself as one of the top backs in the NFL and in 2014, he and Rodgers had the Packers minutes from the Super Bowl.  With the injuries at the wide receiver position, that just means more Lacy, and that isn't a bad thing. 1,300-1,500 yards is certainly possibility for Lacy in 2015.

The division itself - I don't see another team in this division that can keep Green Bay from winning the division. I know the Lions were only a game back in 2014 and nearly advanced to the Divisional round, but I have yet to buy into the Lions and the loss of Ndamkong Suh and Nick Fairley will keep them from taking over the division. The Vikings are an up and coming team, but they are not there yet and the Bears are simply not good.

Reasons they may not win the division:

Injuries - The loss of Jordy Nelson (ACL) cannot be understated. Nelson has established himself as a top 10 receiver in the NFL and with 98 catches, 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014, it is easy to see why.  With Nelson healthy, Green Bay was one of the favorites for Super Bowl 50. Without Nelson, Green Bay's chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy have been dealt a serious blow - regardless of how well Davante Adams plays.

Overall:

Even with the loss of Nelson, I don't think any team in the North can mount a real threat to the Packers and the division title. Think about this for a moment, in 2014 Aaron Rodgers threw 5 interceptions...all year long! The other three starters in the north combined for 42 interceptions - or eight and a half seasons worth of interceptions for Rodgers, who has thrown 43 interceptions in his last six seasons combined. Unless Rodgers gets injured, the Packers will win this division.

2) Minnesota Vikings

2015 Prediction: 8-8

2014 Record: 7-9, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

How they win the division:

Adrian Peterson rushes for 2,000 yards - Peterson reaching 2,000 yards is not out of the realm of possibility, but even if he reaches the 2,000 yard mark, I don't think the Vikings can win the division without Rodgers getting injured.

Teddy Bridgewater takes a huge step - I love Teddy Bridgewater and had the Bengals taken him in the 2014 draft, I wouldn't have minded. Bridgewater had a solid rookie season, going 6-6 in 12 starts, throwing for 2,919 yards, 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 64.4% completion percentage, however, if the Vikings have any aspirations of unseating Rodgers and the Packers from their NFC North perch, Bridgewater will need to take a big step forward. While Peterson's presence in the backfield will certainly help Bridgewater, I don't see it being enough to get past the Packers.

Mike Zimmer - Speaking of Vikings personnel whom I love, Zimmer is a great coach and players love playing for him. In his first season in Minnesota, the Vikings defense went from 31st to 14th, and with their first three draft picks going on the defensive side of the ball, this may be a top 10 defense in 2015.

Why they won't win the division:

Talent Gap - In a division that has Calvin Johnson, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffrey, Kevin White, Golden Tate, etc. the Vikings number one receiver is either Mike Wallace or a third year player from Grand Valley State, Charles Johnson. Throw in the fact that the Vikings have a second year quarterback in a division that has three gun-slinging vets, and that is a large talent gap to overcome.

Teddy Bridgewater - As much as I like Bridgewater, I don't see him as being ready to overtake one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Aaron Rodgers - 2014 Rodgers = 38 touchdowns, 5 interceptions. 2014 Bridgewater = 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.

Overall:

I like this Vikings team and believe they are an up and coming team with legitimate playoff aspirations, I just don't see them as a legitimate threat to win the division.

3) Detroit Lions

2015 Prediction: 8-8

2014 Record: 11-5, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

How they win the division:

The passing game explodes and Matthew Stafford regains his 2011 form - 2011 was a breakout year for the Lions and Matthew Stafford. Stafford had his best season in terms of yards (5,038), touchdowns (41) and completion percentage (63.5%) and in doing so, lead the Lions back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Along with Stafford, 2011 saw Calvin Johnson put up 96 receptions, 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns - all personal bests at the time. With the losses the Lions had along the defensive line and the uncertainty of the running game, if the Lions are going to have any chance of winning the division, it will have to be on the arm of Stafford and the hands of Johnson.

Haloti Ngata has a dominant season - Unlike 2011 where the Lions made the postseason on the arm of Stafford and hands of Johnson, the 2014 Lions team made the playoffs on the shoulders of a 2nd ranked defense - a defense lead by Ndamukong Suh, the best defensive tackle in the league, and Nick Fairley, a solid first round pick. Both are gone and with them, went the Lions top five defense. Ngata was once the most dominant tackle in the league, and while he is no longer that same player, if the Lions plan on winning the division, he has to revert to that form.

Offensive line has a huge bounce back - If the Lions want to get back to the playoffs, the line  - a unit ranked 22nd in 2014 - needs to create more holes in the running game and they cannot allow Stafford to be sacked 45 times like he was in 2014.

Why they won't win the division:

The Schedule - In 2014, the Lions benefitted from playing two of the weaker divisions in the NFL, the NFC South and the AFC East. Five of the Lions 11 wins came against the NFC South (where not a single team finished over .500) and the bottom of the AFC East (Dolphins and Jets). In 2015, the NFC North will be playing the NFC and AFC West, two of the better divisions in the NFL. In my opinion, the difference in schedule is a three game difference for the Lions, pulling the Lions back to eight wins.

Offensive line - In 2014, the Lions offensive line ranked 29th in yards per attempt (YPA - 3.6) and 22nd in terms of sacks allowed (45). They took an offensive guard in the first round (Laken Tomlinson), but until I see the run game improve and Stafford spending less time on the turf, this line is a concern...especially when the NFC West comes to town.

Matthew Stafford - No one seems to escape criticism (at least nationally) than Stafford and it seems the only season people remember is his huge 2011 seasons (5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns). However, in his six seasons in the league, Stafford has a losing record (35-42), has made the playoffs just twice (0-2), has a completion percentage under 60% (59.6%) and has averaged 18 interceptions per 16 games...despite having the best receiver in the NFL at his disposal for all six seasons. And, while Stafford has averaged 27 touchdowns per 16 games, in the three seasons since 2011, Stafford has averaged just 24 touchdowns and 16 interceptions mediocre stats that can win with a very good defense - like he had in 2014 - something he does not have in 2015.

Losses along the defensive line -Few people realize that the Lions ranked 1st overall in 2015 in terms of run defense and 2nd in overall defense. However, in the offseason, they lost their top two defensive tackles -Suh and Fairley - and will find the NFC and AFC West on their schedule in 2015, two division with much more explosive rushing attacks than the NFC South and AFC East, whom the Lions played in 2014. While I like the addition of Ngata, 1) he is 31 years old and coming off one of his least productive seasons, 2) he is not the player he once was, 3) he has a hamstring injury, and 4) he cannot replace Suh, let alone Suh and Fairley.

Overall:

Since drafting Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, the Lions have always been able to put up points, but their defense has held them back. In 2014, the Lions finally won with defense and as a result, compiled the most wins in Stafford's career (11) and were one bad call from advancing to the Divisional round of the playoffs. However, they couldn't re-sign the two most important pieces of that defense (Suh and Fairley), and as a result, the Lions will take a step back in 2015.

4) Chicago Bears

2015 Prediction: 5-11

2014 Record: 5-11, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 70%

How they win the division:

The "Good" Jay Cutler - This is the Jay Cutler that has football "experts" drooling each year because of his strong arm, gun slinger mentality, ability to "make all the throws," etc. It is the Jay Cutler who shows up a few times a year and looks like a top 5 QB. Cutler can make all the throws, he does have the physical tools to be a great QB, and even with the loss of Brandon Marshall, he still has the weapons to be dangerous. If he can ever be this guy from week to week, the Bears could make a push for the playoffs.

Matt Forte carries the load - At 29 years old, Forte is one year short of the dreaded birthday for NFL running backs and he has a lot of miles on the tires. However, Forte still looks like a work horse running back, and though he won't have 102 receptions under John Fox as he did Marc Trestman, he is still capable of carrying the load and being a top five running back.

Why they won't win the division:

The "Bad" Jay Cutler - This is the Cutler the media seems to forget about when mesmerized by his arm strength. This is the Cutler that has only one playoff appearance in nine seasons - and that was five years ago. The Cutler that has only three winning seasons in nine years in the league and no season with more than 10 wins. This is the Cutler that averages more than 1 INT per game (130 INTs in 119 starts) and has had a season with 26 INTs (2009) and is coming off a season where he led the NFL with 18 interceptions. This is the Cutler that has never had a rating over 89.2. And this is the Cutler that has three seasons of sub 60% completion percentage. The Bears defense cannot bail out "Bad Cutler" in 2015. If he averages 1+ turnovers a game as he has throughout his career, it may not matter how many points the Bears put up because the 2015 Bears defense won't be able to hold up on short fields.

The Defense - I thought the Bears made a mistake taking Kevin White with their first round pick. In my opinion, they should have taken Danny Shelton, the nose tackle from Washington. This is a defense that ranked 30th in total defense, 30th against the pass, t-22nd in rushing yards per attempt and 31st in points per game. They didn't do much to improve a bad defense and that will haunt them in 2015.

The Division - The NFC North may be the worst division to be in if defense is your weak link. And defense is the Bears weak link. The Bears defense will be severely outmatched in every division game, and that is not a recipe for success.

Overall:

The Bears have a bad defense and a turnover prone quarterback. That is a recipe for disaster, especially when you play in a division with some high powered offenses and powerful running backs.

Final division analysis:

The NFC North is the Packers and then a drop off to everyone else. Barring an injury to Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will win this division. The only question is who can finish second and will that team be able to squeeze into the playoffs.